Power Up: An Interview With An Xbox Live Indie Game Creator

Here at D Pad D Bags, we value all types of game developers, from the overly ambitious and fiscally irresponsible Curt Chilly to the one-man crews that power up (ha!) the Xbox Live Indie Game (XBLIG) center. I recently had the chance to interview Mike of Psychotic Psoftware about his experience as an up and coming game developer. Check it out below.

1.What motivated you to create a game for XBLIG?

I’ve always loved making little Shockwave games with the dying Director platform. Having spent about ten years fruitlessly laboring over my Shockwave games, I’d all but given up on trying to do anything indie. Having made absolutely no returns from my endeavours, I kicked the whole one-man game development thing to the hobby back-burner.

Then in 2011, I was showing off my efforts to a programmer friend of mine who was dumbfounded as to why I’d never bothered trying xna for coding XBLIG games. I explained that not being a programmer, I wasn’t really aware of its existence. He threw a bit of info my way and assured me that I’d be able to cope with learning it, so I had a crack.

I researched all the bits I’d need… it was basically Visual Studio and a USB Xbox 360 pad. I ordered my pad and went looking for simple game tutorials. One of the first ones I found was for a side-scrolling shooter. I didn’t really expect to follow any of it, but four hours later I had reproduced the tutorial game and was desperate to rip it apart and make it my own. I suppose you could say I was motivated. I’d say I was just hungry for more.

2.Have you considered using crowdsourcing like Kickstarter to aid you in obtaining funds for the project?

Considered; yes. But ultimately, something hard to put my finger on got the better of me. I’ll try to break it down a bit here…

At first, I just felt that I wanted to earn the outcomes of my work and not have it in advance. I still feel very strongly like that. But there’s more to it, and I think it’s a cultural thing. Here in the UK, we’re a suspicious bunch, and we don’t have the sense of entitlement that the use of a facility like Kickstarter requires. Too many questions get in the way…

I read somewhere that Kickstarter doesn’t fund you for salaries (basically, your time) or for equipment that outlives the production of your project (so that’s hardware and software, right). Let’s face it; this is all that an indie developer needs. If we’re not allowed to be funded for the stuff we need, on a matter we don’t really feel entitled to or comfortable with then it’s probably not worth the trouble.

I’ve seen indie dev projects asking for £50000 for their first project. Some of them look absolutely awesome and I really hope they get the cash they need and get the job done…but it seems nuts to me. I’m one guy, literally in a back bedroom in my house with an aging little computer. All I really have is my time and my hard-earned skills, so two evenings a week I put those things into my latest little labor-of-love project in the hopes that one day I might release something with some returns so that me and mine don’t need to tighten the belt so much. £50000 for concept art, designers, marketeers, etc? I figure I’d be set for years on a tenth of that, provided I keep my day-job, of course.

I might change my mind on the whole thing later on. Maybe I’m just not convinced that there isn’t a bit of small-print somewhere demanding a tiny portion of my soul. I suppose I live in a culture that sees something like Kickstarter as too good to be true. I was told that if something seems too good to be true, it probably is.

Either way, for now I’d rather just do the thing I love on my own terms and put it out there when it’s done. I figure that that’s the time for people to choose whether they want to invest in it or not.

3. It seems like your progression into the gaming industry has been rather organic. Looking back, do you think you might have benefited by jumping right into programming and creating games?

I grew up in Liverpool. It was quite a big place for games in the 80s and 90s and I knew people who left school and got QA jobs at some of the biggest games companies in the world.

My mum was insistent that I go to university and get “properly educated.” The trouble is, when I went, there were no games degrees out there! I know, hard to believe, eh? So when I came out, I was qualified for Media Production. Most of my peers went into TV, film, and advertising. It was only really at this point that I’d begun to really feel my calling into games, so without the formal training I did my best to follow it. Luckily, I could draw and I’d previously chased a bit of work experience at one of the aforementioned games companies. All that got me some work in 2D games, but I was never able to really get a foothold at the cutting edge.

Also, I was never really a programmer. As a teenager, nothing terrified me more than programming. I’m an artist, then a musician. Eventually, I accepted that to make any real headway in the industry I love, I might have to turn to the kind of games I grew up with and push my hobby up a step, by developing my programming skills so that I could go it alone should the need arise. That’s pretty much where I am now.

4. What other projects have you worked on? Could you send us some links to a few of them?

I’ve worked on one or two games that people would know, but I’m afraid that my professional portfolio has to remain separate from the Psychotic Psoftware one. I also recently removed all of my old Psychotic hobby games from the online world so that I could effectively hit the reset switch on the whole thing. That said, if you have a look at my blog, I refer to those games several times. I also have a few screen shots from them on there.

I won’t talk too much about them here, though, because there’s a non-zero chance you’ll see much improved remakes of one or two of them in the not-too-distant future. Power Up itself started life as one of my little hobby games. If you’re interested in snapshots of what I produced back then, here’s the link to my blog.

http://psychoticpsoftware.blogspot.co.uk/

5. What were your inspirations for the project? Are you particularly fond of side-scrolling space shooters?

If I had to cite a favorite genre from my childhood era of gaming, when I played more than I made, I’d have to go with the scrolling beat-em-up. Everything from Target Renegade to Streets of Rage just did it for me. Even so, I loved games in general and was far from averse to a good bit of shoot-em-up action. The two games which I think had the most direct influence on Power Up in its present incarnation are Project X on the Amiga for its rich audio and visuals and Hellfire on the Megadrive/Genesis for its selectable weapon design. I always saw massive potential for development there.

6. What kind of challenges have you encountered to date?

I’ve come across all kinds of issues in creating and releasing my first XNA game, though the ones I’m currently focused on are creative ones. One of the easier creative challenges early on was the decision to move from drawn 2D into rendered 3D for the spaceships. This saved a lot of limited production time and made for a nice visual style. Other challenges included making the best of collision detection, what style to go with for the music, how to make the consistent sounds, etc. Some of this is covered in the blog so I won’t go on about it too much.

The biggest challenge for me, a non-coder, really was that of actually coding something playable that worked! I was so chuffed with managing that particular task that everything since has been gravy. I quickly realized that the best way to manage any coding challenge and not have the project overwhelm me into submission was to start simple, then work my way up in complexity with the progression of the game.

In-game baddies are a good example of this. I started with what the tutorial taught me, namely moving a baddie from right to left, making it remove itself from the game once off-screen or having it explode with the player if it collides. Then I copied it and made it do something more complex like wobble on the spot as though floating, or maybe shoot a bullet in a random direction at a slow repeat rate. Later increments of the basic baddie AI might start to aim those shots at the player, fire or spawn at faster rates, home in their flight paths on the player, shoot homing missiles, and so on. As I populated the game, these added complexities became the enemies’ artificial intelligence, making for a harder and harder progression through the game.

I’m now at the point where I’ve learned enough about having enemies do what I want to use that knowledge in attempting to create the level bosses I designed earlier, though this in itself is one heck of a challenge.

7. What specifically makes Power Up different from other games created for and sold on XBLIG?

I guess that the answer to this wasn’t really on the forefront of my mind when I started or committed to Power Up. I just wanted to make a game with an emphasis on good controllability so that my future endeavours would at least have that covered.

By basing Power Up on what I considered to be some of the cooler games of its genre from back in the day, I inadvertently made a game that I really wanted to play. True, Power Up doesn’t have the creative fine art qualities of post-modern self awareness that some modern indie games have, and it doesn’t have the mathematical discipline that some wonderful games from the classic shooter genre had. You certainly can’t memorize a path through the game as the baddies have equal doses of randomness and player-awareness about them.

All that said, I’m pretty hopeful that people will be quite wowed by the game as an example of what can be done in a year of spare time if one person is determined enough.

Mostly though, I think that the game has loads of retro charm and if you come from my 16-bit era of gaming, Power Up might well be as much for you as it is for me. While there are loads of great games on XBLIG, there are not that many games that capture the 16-bit principles as well as those created by the people who lived through and loved that era.

8. Do you have a strategy to figure out how to stand out in the crowded XBLIG marketplace?

Nope. I’m just going to put it out there and see what happens. I’ve never done it before, so that’s all I’ve got. If I make a good enough final product, present it properly, and find that there’s an audience for it, then it’ll do well and I’ll feel I’ve earned that.

If it doesn’t, then I’ll learn from that. It won’t stop me from making my games.

9. What are your favorite games in the XBLIG marketplace?

I do get through the indie games on the market place. Occasionally I even remember what they were called. I’ve not really sussed cloud storage so my hard drive space is at a premium. However, there are a few indie games that never leave my hard drive. I suppose you could say they’re my favourites at the moment but this is always subject to change.

Miner Dig Deep is just an absolute triumph of ambience and immersion and probably the catalyst that had me try Minecraft out. I’d include that too as I still can’t get over playing it two-player with my other half, but I won’t because it’s so obvious. I’m also not sure that a oliath like Mojang and the likes of me could even remotely fit under the same “indie” nomenclature.

I love the efforts of individuals or tiny little groups and recently got hooked to a simple little game called Zombie Estate as it had an element of defending yourself in a spookily real, though cartoony apocalypse. There was still something about it that kept it on my hard drive and has me going back regularly, a sense of isolation and melancholy without fanfare that was only really matched in the original Resident Evil game or the recent Project Zomboid.

10. Are there any unique game play mechanics that you want to mention?

As I mentioned earlier, I was heavily influenced by the weapon swapping ideas in Hellfire on the Genesis/Megadrive, though if I’m completely honest, it was such a long time ago that I played the game that I may have done something only mildly similar. I guess that would be a good thing, though, and make Power Up quite original, right?

I did add one other control mechanic that was rather well received. Recently, when tightening up the player’s crash-and-burn death sequence, I had a little play with the code. Now, instead of just arcing down off the bottom of the screen while repeatedly exploding, I’ve thrown in just a little bit of limited control so that when you die, you have a chance of taking a few more of those alien swine to hell with you.

Ever since I saw something similar in Burnout I found myself trying to swing my dying spaceship around a bit, so thought I’d throw it in as it was only the work of minutes. I mentioned it on Twitter and it seemed to go down really well. I don’t think I’ve ever seen that in a classic side-scrolling shooter, so hopefully that’s a small first.

11.  Are you a fan of narrative-based side-scrolling shooters like Sine Mora? Will Power Up feature anything similar?

I’m afraid I’m not particularly. I always found narratives in older games to be hard work. With all the best intent in the world, I’m the type who ends up skipping the quest text in WoW just to get on with it. When I made Power Up, it was really all about the controls and tight but simple collision. What better way to teach yourself that stuff than with a nice fast, accurate, classic-styled shooter?

Don’t get me wrong, I loved my Battle Squadron, Chronos, Silkworm/SWIV, Apidya, R-Type, Xennon, Truxton, etc., but with exposition, once I’ve read it the first time it’s skip, skip, skip.

I felt that Power Up needed some exposition and I felt that the convention of character dialogue would work pretty well. It does, but I’ve gone right out of my way to make it very, very skippable too.

12. When can we get out hands on Power Up?

That all depends on how smoothly it goes through the AppHub per testing process, but I’m still hoping to submit it in the new year and to see it hit XBLIG in spring 2013. There’s a chance it’ll be a bit late, but I’ll do what I can to meet the deadline… short of letting it go out full of glitches, of course.

13.What games are you most looking forward to in the next few months?

There’s very little in the mainstream of console gaming that I find particularly inspiring at the moment. This is a really sad state of affairs and I guess that in a nutshell, nobody has the money to take any risks. I know a few companies have put interesting stuff on the backburner in order to get some safe money in. Unfortunately, this means that a lot of uninspiring product is out there and more is coming. There are a few indie PC games that I’m following, but for the most part, at the moment, even on those the jury is still out. You’ve caught me at something of a quiet time with this question with regards to games. On the other hand, I’m hopeful that there’s a shift coming in the way a lot of us play and very little has piqued my interest more than the new Ouya platform. While I’m unsure as to how I’ll get my games to it, I’m really looking forward to getting mine and having a really good play. It reminds me of the halcyon Amiga days when everybody got the chance to contribute to the public domain. I’ve been looking forward to it since it was announced and it would be fair to say I’m totally stoked!!

14. Anything else you would like to add?

Sorry for taking all week to get back to you on these questions. This week has possibly been the busiest I’ve had in a while. As you might or might not know, my very first trailer for Power Up came out on November 5th (tonight at the time of writing) over on my YouTube channel.

http://www.youtube.com/user/psychoticpsoftware

 


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