KM: We touched on it before but it’s clear that you do envisage the XBLA and WiiWare as part of your future?
NV: Definitely. XBLA is coming for us for sure and WiiWare has started for us with Heartbeat. Our focus with the WiiWare game is to keep it to a small team, with lots of creativity, lots of passion for the idea. Our Creative Director is one of those idea guys who, when the concept for Heartbeat came out of his brain, we all went; “cool”. It’s a very WiIWare type of game, not something we could translate to another platform just because of the input, so yeah that’s where we’re at. I can see us doing a lot more PSN stuff, moving onto XBLA which we hope isn’t going to be a huge development so we hope to see it in the middle of next year on that particular platform.
KM: By having smaller teams focused on different projects, it’s almost as if you can just go “BAM!” and put titles out without having to worry about release windows and the like.
NV: There’s a lot of talk nowadays about studios putting down 2-3million bucks per game, such as Team 17 who are doing the Alien Breed. It looks fantastic and I’ll be picking up as the original was super cool.
That makes sense for them and I can totally see why they’re doing it, the pseudo big budget PSN/XBLA titles, but on the other side of the fence Jonathon Mak did Everyday Shooter by himself and his next game (his office is in the same building as us, we’re good friends) will be a three person game which will be him and a musician called `I am Robot and Proud`. And that stuff works just as well as a big blockbuster on the downloadable platforms . We still wanna make some bigger games, but we think there’s a lot of validity in putting together smaller teams to work on focused and unique titles that don’t have to be huge.
That’s what we’re doing on our WiiWare title and I think that’s what we’ll continue to do on our other titles as well.
KM: It’s nice to hear that developers on the download services aren’t getting too obsessed with the budgets for their titles, but interested on what’s going to hook players, as this is what made the services so popular in the beginning.
NV: For sure. You look at the likes of ThatGameCompany; they’re not big teams but they’re putting out games like Flower which looks like a title that is made by a lot of people, well it does to me at any rate. If you’d told me that 20 people had worked on Flower I wouldn’t be surprised, but it was seven or eight people who did it, so it’s a great avenue for good ideas.
KM: Every time I’ve either read or seen an interview with him, Jenova Chen appears to have a very singular vision, and his team is small enough that they can capture the essence of his ideas. Nothing gets lost in translation, everything seems to click.
NV: Totally, from music, to the visuals, to the programming, to the people that go out and talk about it. I mean, they seem to be a very well integrated company. They all get “it” and they deserve every accolade they get. A title like Flower is such a personal experience.
KM: Hype can be both a help and a hindrance just as much on the download services as traditional retail games. How have you managed the right level of exposure before release?
NV: That’s a good question. Our mentality is to talk to everyone who is interested in the game and interact with them on a human level. I’d much rather go to a pub to talk about the game than send out a PR person to read off a prepared list. So building the hype isn’t about crazy things in the game or marketing wizardry, it’s about showing a game you can say you like, and I think there’s a lot to be said for grass roots, `do it yourself` attitude. We’ve worked with PR companies in the past and sure it works on a certain level, but you don’t have interaction with the people who will end up buying your game.
There was a talk at GDC about Indie PR and one of the best things you can do is put out a good trailer. Not many people knew a great deal about Critter Crunch before then and once the trailer came out the reaction was super positive. We poured a lot of love into that. Also doing everything we can to get ourselves out there, talking about the game, building the hype and getting as much coverage as we can. Talking to everyone, whether their site gets 15 hits or 15 million hits, it’s a way to reach out to as many people and convince them to play the game.
KM: The beauty of handling your own PR, is that you get build relationships with sites and media outlets such as Console Arcade, and it’s not just being handled by a PR person who might not be 100% interested in the title. It might sound cynical –
NV: No, I totally agree. I like doing this. It’s fun to talk about my game, because I LIKE my game. The fringe benefit is that we get to discuss the game, not dilute it down to a set of bullet points and hope that’s enough.
But in terms of how to manage hype? I have no idea. We’ll learn as we go along. Right now one of the things we’re wary of is not to oversell the game. We’re never gonna say it’s the best game in the world, we like it a lot and hope others will like it as much. Our creative director Chris always brings up the point that when someone says; “this is the best game ever!” or “this is the best first person shooter ever!”. He always thinks; “I’ll be the judge of that, not you”. The people playing it will be the judge and all we can do is convey how much we like it. Having a developer who likes their own game is a selling point.
KM: Do you feel that the main news services do enough to promote the download titles? Or do you find the smaller sites tend to be far more interested?
I think it depends. We’ve had some really good interaction with the larger sites, but also we’ve had some that haven’t given us a piece of coverage. But there’s a lot of titles to cover, right? I think we’ve had a lot of really great coverage from the smaller to medium sites, and there’s a few of the bigger sites who have been super cool with us. One of the really notable ones I have to give a shout out to is the US PlayStation Blog because they’ve been very cool towards us. The Eye Chat interview we did, was a lot of fun.
It probably sounds like I’m brown-nosing Sony a lot, but the guys on the Marketing and blog side have been really cool with us. But I’d love to see more coverage for ALL downloadable titles. IGN has that section on XBLA titles, but I’d love to see them set up a PSN specific and WiiWare specific areas too. Of the sites I’ve dealt with, some have people dedicated to the downloadable services and some don’t. Those who don’t have dedicated people will struggle to cover the amount of titles on them because there are so many games now. The big sites that do have people devoted to it, I think they do a really good job of it. I was delighted when IGN came out and played Critter Crunch at E3, and nominated us for a bunch of best at E3 awards. We were delighted with that as they’re a big site and they have a ton of other stuff to cover, so we really appreciated them taking the time to cover us.
KM: What have been your favourite PSN/XBLA/WiiWare titles?
NV: I’m gonna start with PSN as that’s where we are right now. I love FlOw and Flower, two very different experiences, but Flower is the only game I’ve used my SIXAXIS for. I love the SIXAXIS experience in Flower. I love PixelJunk, I even liked PixelJunk Racers which a lot of people weren’t exactly excited about, but it fell into the type of game I enjoy. I’m really excited about PixelJunk Shooter, and of course theres Everyday Shooter, as I respect Jonathon Mak like crazy.
We had this whole set-up in the studio where we’d play PixelJunk Monsters. People would stick around until 2am with one person playing and four others would sit on the couch and provide feedback, so we love that game. We’re also playing a LOT of Shatter, which is super super cool even though it was one of those titles when I first heard about it I wasn’t sure, but we love it. The developers actually sent us a couple of codes as they’d heard us mention the game a few times!
On WiiWare, definitely World of Goo and Swords and Soldiers is a fantastic game. Developers Romino Games are definitely one to watch going forward. They came up with the concept of the De Blob. It was their idea but they gave the idea to THQ to develop. I’ve played Cave Story at E3 and it plays very well, the studio making it has a lot of interesting stuff coming out on WiiWare which we’re excited about as well.
On XBLA, you could run through all the games everyone has played but I love N+ and Braid, Castle Crashers and `Splosion Man. Twisted Pixel put on a couple of really good sessions at GDC, talking about the finer details of their studio. It’s another game with great personality that shines through.
There’s a lot of stuff coming up on all three platforms that I’m excited about, probably more so as our studio is focused on these areas, but also because I think that’s where most of the good games have been released this generation. As a studio we end up downloading probably too many games which costs us a lot of money *laughs* We have a 360, PS3 and Wii set up at the studio, every game we’re interested in we buy and play for inspiration and out of interest. We have a solid 30 titles on PSN, about 70 XBLA games and a host of WiiWare titles.
KM: So it’s fair to say Capybara has to stock up on Microsoft Points then?
NV: Yeah, a little bit. *laughs* People tend to play a title in the office and if they like it, will buy it when they get home. Developers should be giving us codes as we’re selling their games for them!
KM: What do you see as the future for downloadable titles? With everyone now grabbing a piece of the downloadable pie, do you think its inevitable that smaller titles will just end up being mixed in with the larger games and getting lost?
NV: I think the best thing about these platforms is that they’ve convinced people who aren’t just the super hardcore game players to take a chance on a game. From the solo players through to the hardcore or even the more casual gamer, there’s an experience for all. For instance my girlfriend’s brother bought N+. I didn’t tell him to buy it, he just thought it looked cool and he was ready to take a risk on a game that was different.
As you see larger and larger XBLA and PSN games, they get stronger and stronger on their respective marketplace. Of course companies can go ahead and spend a few million dollars on a PSN/XBLA title, but there’s going to be tons of other studios that’ll do a title for a fraction of that cost and provide gamers with something unique. They might be just as good, if not better, than the titles that have had a small fortune spent on them.
KM: I’d imagine that you hope Critter Crunch will happily sit alongside a title such as WipEout HD, a title that could quite easily have a full blown Blu-ray disc release because of the content on offer, and highlighting the strengths of what the download services can offer?
NV: Very much so. We did an interview with an independent online `zine called Steel Bananas and one of the things we talked about in that discussion was that four or five years ago there wasn’t an avenue for smaller, unique titles on consoles. In the last two or so years, the industry has gotten shaken up by this.
Sure it can sound slightly cheesy, but when you see how well World of Goo, Braid, Castle Crashers and Flower have done, you can’t help but notice the shift. It really proves that small, unique independent games can exist and thrive alongside the really big retail releases like your Halos, Gears of War and Uncharteds of this world. It means there’s opportunity for these unique experiences.
KM: You mention Gears of War there. When Epic took on Chair and helped develop Shadow Complex, we all expected it to be at least 1800 Microsoft Points or whatever, but the price it’s coming out at, and given how deep the game world is meant to be, it`s a lot of content for the price.
NV: Yeah that game is crazy. I was lucky enough to have the chance to play it at E3. It’s pretty special and looks fantastic. It’s also a sign of the times that Chair was this small independent studio, and next thing you know their working with Epic on Shadow Complex.
What interests me is seeing how far people can push creativity on the download platforms, just how much content can you squeeze into a title like Shadow Complex? It has all the hallmarks of a high level game right there, but there’s definitely room for all types of games on the download platforms. I hope the Nintendo’s, Sony’s and Microsoft’s continue to support them in a big way, not to forget that some of their biggest hits this generation have come from this avenue.
For example, Braid was created by two people and my only real fear is, with the bigger budgets and larger publishers getting a whiff of big profits, that it doesn’t limit the space offered to other smaller developed titles. I think those types of games can drastically outsell the big games as there’s something to latch onto, something more special.
KM: There seems to be a sense of developers becoming more comfortable with the download services and that they can encompass a wide variety of titles
NV: For sure. Seeing the more “out there” titles doing extremely well, it almost entices people to take bigger risks and to go further, to try different things. Hopefully the platform holders continue to support that. There is a whole slew of great ideas out there and as Nintendo or Sony or Microsoft continue to foster that growth, continue to provide space for these ideas, you’ll see some crazy shit being released, some incredible games. I just hope it keeps on going and the backing is there.
Another example is Sony taking ThatGameCompany and backing them when they were still at University, Cloud was their Thesis project. The studio formed out of that, which is a smart move, sign up the geniuses! *laughs*
I’ve had the pleasure of sitting down with some of the people in charge of the PlayStation Network, and they’re appreciative of our support of the PSN, which mirrors my experiences of dealing with Sony in general. They’re very interested in what we do and I hope that continues and other studios have that level of interest placed in their titles on the consoles, outside of the PC scene. The PC scene is always going to have awesome, quirky weird stuff and that’s never gonna stop as it’s an open platform. I’ll always want to play them, but I also want to play similar stuff on console platforms as well.
KM: You can always sit in front of a PC, but you can’t do that with family friends, etc like you can with a console in front of the TV with the controller, passing it around or whatever, taking it back to what we all grew up with.
NV: I love the co-op experience and just the experience of watching people play. I’ve spent a lot of time watching people play Flower, longer than I’d like to admit! *laughs* But being entranced by a title like that, and another example is Everyday Shooter, you can sit down and watch that unfold, it’s a great experience that you don’t get that easily with a PC.
Jonathon Mak talks a lot about culture and how video games fit into that. I think that having space on these financially viable platforms is important for hitting a wide demographic. They’re much more likely to maybe pick up a title on PSN/XBLA than they might do on a PC.
KM: I think you’ve hit the nail on the head there actually. You can just hop onto the Marketplace or the Store and everything is there, and it’s inclusive. You can put in your payment details and take a chance on something at £4.99 or 200 Microsoft Points or whatever, and give it a try.
NV: Totally, and I think it generates good buzz for good games which in turn makes good word of mouth and good sales, but it all starts from people being willing to take a chance. I personally think there’s a lot of people who’ll happily do that with different games, which is reflected in the success of a LOT of downloadable games. In some cases, obscene success.
KM: Surely that is the aim though? There is no harm in developers such as you wanting to be successful which in turn allows you to continue to develop all these interesting concepts.
NV: Sure. I love that Castle Crashers was a monster hit, because I know they’ll make another weird assed game and I can’t wait to play it. It provides the financial component but it validates the idea that you can not only make something small and unique and it doesn’t have to be a giant mega blockbuster. It also validates that a lot of people are interested in that type of title, that people are into it, and will pay for that experience.