17-Bit’s Borut Pfeifer: Navigating the Choppy Platform Waters

Owen’s on holiday. Our first guest post this week comes from the pen of Borut Pfeifer, one of the three swords at 17-Bit. Their first title, strategy game Swords of the Shogun, has been highly anticipated by many (myself included). 17-Bit raised a few eyebrows when they announced that it would be a Windows 8 exclusive – albeit available across the panoply of Win8-enabled desktops, Xboxes, phones, and the like. I asked Borut to tell us a little more about what it’s like to be an indie developing for a platform so new you can still write your initials in the wet cement.

Droppin' daimyos.

Droppin’ daimyos.

I’m Borut Pfeifer, lead programmer and one of the designers of Skulls of the Shogun. You may (god I hope) have heard of our game, which won two best strategy game awards of E3 2011, and piled up several other awards and nominations since then.

We call it an arcade strategy game – it’s a squad tactics game in the vein of Advance Wars, but we’ve streamlined a lot of the clunky interface common to the genre: removed the grid, sped up the pace, and populated it with dead samurai. Direct control of units gives the game the feel of an action game without (we think) sacrificing any of the strategy.

We’ve been in development for three years, which seems like a lot – but we’ll be one of the first games available for Windows 8. At launch, the game will be out on Xbox Live Arcade, Windows Phone, and the somewhat controversial Windows 8 store. It will also be the first game to feature asynchronous gameplay across all those Xbox Live platforms. What brought us to that point, launching on three platforms with only two fulltime programmers?

Small developers like us (3 people for a while, now up to 5 fulltime) face a daunting task – not enough resources to build cross platform titles for launch, and so many platforms to pick from. You have to at least make enough to survive on the first one to port it to the others. The shifts in platforms can feel like a rollercoaster ride – and not one of those polished Six Flags coasters, more like a rickety contraption in a traveling carnival run by a guy with one arm and an eye patch.

When we started, XBLA was a very strong marketplace for games. Over 60% of games sold at least 40,000 copies – back then that was more than enough to pay for the game’s development. There’s a lot of risk being an indie game dev, and while it’s great to imagine yourself with a runaway hit, really all you want is just to make your money back so you can keep making your own games.

The basic fact is the Windows 8 store terms are the best around.So we started with XNA – a great piece of tech for both beginners and experienced game devs. We figured Microsoft would announce a phone, and sure enough they soon did (using XNA for game development on it). We figured it would be an easier pitch to Microsoft if we could give them a game that worked great on both their platforms, and after a few months of hustling, we were on to something.

Then Windows 8 was announced, and we had a game that already had a touch interface (as well as a mouse/keyboard interface for our PC development build). We had multiplayer gameplay that could work on any of those devices. So it seemed like a great fit (we were also less-than-huge fans of Microsoft’s existing PC game service, Games for Windows live, so all in all it seemed like a no-brainer in be the first in line to support the new Xbox Live On Windows features).

A lot has been made of of possible issues for the Windows 8 store, and we’ve even received some criticism for going that route. I wanted to dispel a few myths that seem common not just among gamers, but experienced devs too. Some developers, like Markus Persson (aka Notch, original developer of Minecraft) criticize the theoretical lack of ability to load WinRT apps outside the store (“side-loading”). The thing is, all Microsoft’s business clients need to do this, so the short story is, you can. (The slightly less than short story is that it might take a little effort on the part of the developer who wants to distribute them that way).

Some folks (especially Gabe Newell, I imagine) worry about desktop apps and how they, or their sales, might change. For a PC user Windows 8 is, really and truly, Windows 7 minus the start button. That’s all. They added it back in Windows 95, and I remember people not liking it back then. If the only thing that is constant is change, I guess the runner up is people being afraid of change.

The basic fact is the Windows 8 store terms are the best around. You take home 80% after you sell 25k, before that you get the standard 70%. You get an automated tool to tell you if you’re overstepping your bounds API wise, one up over Apple. No matter what your opinion on Windows 8 is, if its store does well, developers will be able to demand similar terms and service from every single digital storefront. Apple, Sony, Steam, everybody will have to compete, and that means developers everywhere are better off. (Since we’re an Microsoft published game on the Xbox Live store, we have different terms, but we take hefty advantage of all the Xbox Live features, like the aforementioned cross platform async).

So I have no idea why developers are nervous about the store – they should be cheering, even from the sidelines. But as a starting indie developer, what are your options for releasing your game, and what impact will that have on it?

  • XBLA & PSN. There’s lots of existing places to build awareness for your game (game expos and competitions), but you’ll be crowded and facing stiff competition. These platforms aren’t as easy to find success as they used to be. Certifying your game for consoles takes a lot of work, so you have to be careful here to make sure your game has an audience that will help make up that cost. You definitely can’t rely on it as your only platform.
  • iOS & Android. With difficult marketing channels, common wisdom is that your game has to be free to play. That imposes a lot of design constraints, so if you’re going to buck the trend, you have to know where and how to buck it. They are great fits for short session strategy games, though.
  • Steam. For the past couple years, this has been the go-to place for indie devs to become successful. However, Steam isn’t without change either. I don’t think anyone really knows how Greenlight, its new crowd voting system for accepting new games to sell, will impact it. I don’t have a great opinion of crowd-based curation, so I’m not that optimistic, but there’s no doubt Steam two years from now will be a very, very different place.
  • Handheld game devices like 3DS & PS Vita. I want to like these and see them succeed, but realistically as a small dev, with a smaller, limited audience compared to other platforms, you just can’t take that chance.
  • Windows 8 on PC, tablet, and phone. Hitting that variety of platforms is enticing for developers with few resources. The down side is that is slightly harder to target other platforms at the same time, until middleware like Unity supports it anyway. With diminishing expectations from new generations of consoles and smart phones, it may just be the last big platform launch.

It’s a lot to take in and figure out, especially when you’d rather be making games. There were a few guiding principles we’ve followed, based on others’ successes, and the videogame industry’s long history of platform shifts:

  • Understanding the platform lifecycle from launch, to early competition, to that sweet spot of a critical mass of users and a solid stock of quality games. After that, it gets a lot harder to launch a game on a platform, as more and more titles mean less and less quality. Players slowly go elsewhere, unsure if they can rely on any random game being good. The tough thing is knowing when your game will be done, so you can figure out what point a platform will be at in the cycle.
  • Know the platform’s audience – the type of gameplay they prefer, even the art styles. You don’t always need to change your game to conform (sometimes it helps if you don’t!), but you need to be aware of it. With Skulls of the Shogun, starting out targeting XBLA, we knew the art style would be friendly to fans of other 2D hits there, and our focus on multiplayer would be appreciated. We’re hoping that cross genre gameplay will take action elements that players on XBLA are comfortable with, while injecting deeper strategy gameplay to give players something fresh and new.
  • Showcase a platform’s features – on most platforms, you live or die based on whether or not the platform owner highlights your game in some capacity. While it only makes sense if it’s a fit for the game (and not too expensive to do), it helps to look for ways that you can show off a platform’s features. Whether it’s iOS GameCenter integration or what we’re doing with new Xbox Live features, platform owners like it when you showcase what’s cool about their platform.
  • Marketing channels – this is just distasteful biz-speak for knowing where players are looking for new games on their platform (outside of the store itself). For XBLA, PSN, and Steam it’s game expos like PAX or the Eurogamer Expo, and competitions like the Independent Games Festival or Indiecade (among many others). For iOS and Android, it’s trickier – even if you’re showing the game at those same places, that’s not always where those players are looking. You have navigate social media, like how the iOS hit Sword & Sworcery meshed with Twitter to spread word of the game and have players interact with each other outside the game itself.
  • Simultaneous launch – Common wisdom used be that you should release on all your platforms at once, and get the biggest exposure for any marketing/PR you do. The key words here are “used to be”. The biggest successes in indie games come from titles that use successive launch platforms to build word of mouth. While you want to target as many platforms as your team size allows, you can’t worry if you won’t hit them all. Just don’t force yourself to sink or swim on one platform alone. If your game is good that just increases the number of people who have heard of it when it comes out somewhere else.

So whether you’re a dev trying to pick a platform to launch your game, or just a player trying to figure out where the next best games will be, it can be hard to navigate. There are new consoles coming from Nintendo, Microsoft, and Sony. There’s the Kickstarter funded console Ouya – there’s certainly a lot of room for something else in the console market, but the Ouya has a lot of obstacles if it wants to be that something else. Then there’s the rumored Apple TV – even if that happens, existing iOS devs could have a very hard time finding success (I don’t think a lot of people want to play Angry Birds on their TV).

If you’re a player and not a developer, just be happy you don’t have the stress of making those decisions three years ahead of time!