Ardent supporters of Microsoft’s Indie Games section on Xbox Live, Australian developer Halfbrick Studios are now turning their attention to the Xbox Live Arcade with their upcoming title Raskulls. They took time out of their hectic schedule to talk to us about working on both Indie Games and XBLA titles, as well as the downlodable sphere in general.
Tell us about Halfbrick – who are you and how did you come together?
The studio was founded in 2001 and started developing for the Game Boy Advance with several well-known franchises including Avatar and Nickelodeon licenses. As the years went on we moved to DS and PSP development working with several great publishers. Now we have the resources to develop our own original IP while still working closely with publishers on various contract projects.
You started out developing games for handhelds – did you see downloadable platforms as the next logical progression?
Absolutely, and we definitely wanted to be quick off the mark with that. We can see XBLA and PSN getting bigger and better all the time, and even now with platforms like the Xbox Games On Demand service on the way it’s a natural step to digitally distribute our games. This aspect of the market is only going to get bigger, and we want to be there every step of the way.
Would you say there’s been more or less pressure on you in putting together download only titles?
No pressure, it’s just been the right path all along. We’re definitely happy developing for handheld platforms as time goes on, but any developer who isn’t working on multi-million dollars boxed retail games should be looking at the benefits of direct download distribution. Even the handhelds are moving towards the download route – DSi, PSP and iPhone offer disc-free gaming, so we’re always keeping an eye out for the best options.
As well as the upcoming game Raskulls for XBLA, you’ve also created a number of titles for the Indie Games section of Xbox Live. What’s drawn you into really embracing the Indie Games idea?
We develop smaller, simpler games in our spare time as an aside to our bigger DS, PSP and XBLA projects, and we label these under the “Halfbrick Fridays” brand. Our first games were released on the Indie Games service this year, as Xbox is a proven platform with a massive community. It’s a good way for us to prove concepts and test the waters for our smaller games and see where they can go from there.
There’s been a lot of back and forth between various Indie Games developers about how successful it’s all been. Have your titles fared as well as you’d expected?
The sales on a whole haven’t been amazing, which is a bit disappointing, but we’re lucky to have had very positive reviews across the board for Halfbrick Blast Off and Halfbrick Echoes. This means the games have genuine quality and everyone has become familiar with the Halfbrick name, which has been a primary goal for our Fridays games all along. Many smaller operations have had trouble with their games, but luckily we’re set up to improve upon our concepts and expand into more high-end development with the right game.
You’ve already lifted the lid on Halfbrick Rocket Racing, but can you tell us anything about Halfbrick Zombies?
It’s a very fast arcade style dual stick shooter – with zombies. As far as our Halfbrick Fridays projects go it won’t be released for a while yet, but the core game mechanic has proven to be a success and it’ll certainly be a lot of fun when we manage to get it out there.
Do you intend to continue with the Halfbrick Friday idea?
Absolutely, it represents a different side to our company and shows that we like to explore new concepts and original IP. Fridays is simply a name to establish the smaller, “casual Friday” nature of our games. In the future you’ll be seeing different games, different ideas and all kinds of innovative projects spring forth from our teams, and we’ll be supporting them as best as we can.
What made you decide on XBLA for Raskulls instead of another Indie Games release?
Raskulls is an entirely different beast, bigger and better by a wide margin. Through our work with Microsoft we’ve become an official XBLA developer and Raskulls was always focused to be a full-fledged downloadable game.
There’s certainly a heavy Mr Driller-esque vibe to Raskulls. What can players expect from it and the way it plays?
Let’s just say the game is full of surprises! Don’t worry though, at the core it’s still very much a platformer, which has proven popular time and time again, and even today with brand new games. We’ve added the puzzle aspect to it which will be more or less prominent depending on the level. However, there’s many different gameplay modes and level types – it’s not just one type of puzzle, racing or platforming level each time. We also have the massive racing aspect to it, which is a blast in single player and, more importantly, in multiplayer both locally and over Xbox Live.
The first gameplay trailer shows off a heavy multiplayer slant – was this a very important aspect of the game for you?
Multiplayer is where true longevity can reveal itself. I’m sure we’ll have gamers enjoying the single player adventure for hours, but the option to spend hours online competing is definitely going to be a big draw. As you can see in the trailer there will be split-screen local multiplayer also, which is a blast when you have a whole bunch of friends with you. We’ve seen the comparisons being made with Mario Kart and Bomberman multiplayer, which are great mechanics with a fun, party aspect built around them. We certainly think Raskulls achieves that vision, so anyone should be able to pick it up and understand how it works within seconds.
What inspired the adorable design of the Raskulls?
Two artists on the team basically got together to begin concepting original and quite distinctive character designs, and the idea that ended up sticking out the most was skull dudes wearing a bunch of weird (but cute) costumes. Luckily the core cartoon Raskulls design is very versatile, meaning we can convey emotion well and establish great personalities with each character. The public reception to the Raskulls has been great, with everyone commenting about the appealing style.
There seems to be a real sense of added depth and humor behind each Raskulls character, making them more than the usual generic, throwaway characters. Will there be a story alongside each one or will you be concentrating on the puzzles?
Story will play a big part of the single player adventure, with the characters always offering humor and insight throughout the game. The main storyline is lighthearted and fun, with several snappy cutscenes popping up, and plenty of world map interaction. Each character has their own personality and when you combine this with such endearing design, I think the Raskulls will become very popular. It’s a full-featured game in every way, and we’ve really polished the story mode to a mirror shine. We’re very excited to get it into the hands of gamers as soon as it’s perfect!
Are you finding any real noticeable differences between developing something for Indie Games and XBLA?
Well yes, there’s many differences in all aspects of development. Indie Games is a good proving ground for smaller games, but the kind of high-end development process we use on Raskulls could only ever be suitable for XBLA standards. Raskulls was already in development before Indie Games was even available, so since Indie Games was released we’ve used it a few times, but the bigger picture was always our primary goal.
What downloadable titles (other than your own of course) have captured your attention recently?
There’s a lot of great games being released right now, more than we can even play. Fellow Australian developer Firemint is tearing it up with Flight Control and Real Racing, which have made the rounds on all our iPhones. We’ve also been checking out Splosion Man and the recent Monkey Island remake, which have great polish and accessibility. XBLA in general is releasing more and more quality games which everyone gets the chance to play, and we’re extremely happy that Raskulls will soon be part of quite an exclusive group.
Although it might be some time away yet, what are your plans after finishing Raskulls? Do you have any plans for titles on the PSN and WiiWare?
We can’t reveal anything else at this point as nothing has been finalized, but we have some projects in the pipeline that might be seeing a release on a few different platforms. So as soon as we pin down where and when our super secret games are coming out, we’ll certainly let you know!
A big thank you to Halfbrick Studios for their time. Remember you can download Halfbrick Echoes and Halfbrick Blast Off right now from the Xbox Indie Games section and be sure to check out Raskulls when it arrives on XBLA later this year.