Interview by Jamie Davies and Keith Murray, June 2009
Having developing titles for both PlayStation Network, and currently hard at work on the upcoming game Space Ark for Xbox Live Arcade, we grabbed the opportunity to speak to Dan Marchant of UK developer Strawdog Studios.
Who are Strawdog Studios and how did you get started?
We are an indie developer founded in 2003 and based in an old train yard in Derby. We scavenge the old train parts and use them to make video games. We are sort of like digital wombles. I think that maybe breathing all the diesel fumes from the passing trains may be part of the reason why our games are so colourful and weird. The founders were all working at various large studios when they decided it was time to strike out on their own, to get away from giant mega projects and get back to making smaller, more personal games.
Your upcoming title is Space Ark for XBLA what can players expect?
Space Ark is our idea of what 80s coin ops would be like if they had just been invented today. Inspired by games like Rainbow Island, Arkanoid and Pinball but with an up to date design and modern 3D graphics. A Space Ark filled with animals (the Arkonauts) must travel damaged planets in order to terraform them. On each planet you help them by controlling a bounce pad (think trampoline) and bounce the Arkonauts into the air in order to collect DNA to repair the planets as well as bonuses and power-ups.
What were your main goals when you started designing the game were there any aspects which stood out as being vital inclusions right from the start?
Arms and legs and fruit, plenty of fruit. Our first game Geon featured Cubes, which dont have a lot of character. This time around we wanted to do a game with characters that people could relate to a little more, cute characters with arms and legs and big heads. We also wanted lots of bonuses. thats where the fruit comes in.
Basically we wanted to do something with the childlike fun and innocence of the early 80s coin-ops but brought bang up to date. Some players may be old enough to remember those games the first time around or may have tracked them down and played them on MAME. However there are probably a lot of gamers who havent experienced those games. We were inspired by games like Rainbow Island, Arkanoid & Bubble Bobble. We were a little surprised at the complete lack of effort Taito put into Arkanoid Live, which could have been a competitor for Space Ark with a little bit of effort.
The game was originally called Bounce which seemed to sum the game up well. What were the reasons behind the change?
It turned out that there was already a conflicting trademark (as happened recently with the iPhone game EDGE). The owners of the trademark (Nokia) sent us a letter objecting to our use of it and so we changed the name. Unfortunately I think that problems like this will occur more frequently in the future, which will make life difficult for indies. In addition to the fact that you cant use the best name for your game there is also the duel issues of time and money. It takes time to search the various trademark databases and Google to see if a game name is in use. If you then try to register the name in order to project it there are costs involved and the process can take in excess of six months.
With the more traditional retail releases, a lot of Internet savvy gamers spend time complaining about the overuse of brown and grey colour palettes. Both Space Ark and your PSN title Geon have used a very bright and colourful style is this a concerted effort to bring a bit more colour to gaming?
Yes, as I mentioned earlier we wanted to hark back to an earlier time and create something much more inline with Rainbow Islands, Mario or Sonic. Fun, a little bit silly with cute characters and bright colours. Limited colour pallets are fine in realistic shooting games and racing games but there are an awful lot of those around. We wanted to do something a little less serious.
Do you think downloadable titles lend themselves more towards this sort of approach?
I certainly think that digital distribution allows developers to be more experimental. Creating a unique style that stands out from the crowd also helps your game get noticed. The fact that you can do these titles without the involvement of a publisher means you can be a little more experimental.
Youve worked on titles for the PSN and XBLA. Whats been the key thing youve learnt from developing for these platforms?
In fact we have now done XBLA, PSN, Wii, PC (Geon) and iPhone (Turbo Duck). From a technical/business standpoint we make sure that we develop cross platform technology which allows us to more easily move games onto new platforms. From a game design point of view it is important to focus on the strengths and unique features of each platform. As an indie it is important to try and spread your game across as many formats as possible if you want to make money and spread the fun.
Geon received a traditional retail release on the Wii, but do you have any plans for a WiiWare title?
It is certainly a platform that we are looking at. Strawdog Studios are platform agnostic. We dont favour any one platform over the others, they all have something interesting to offer.
What have you found to be the distinct advantages when working on a downloadable title as opposed to a full retail release?
I would like to say that digital distribution is the land of milk and honey for indie developers but the truth is that when you escape the difficulties of traditional retail publishing you run smack into a whole new set of challenges.
Retail requires big development budgets and bigger marketing spend that means you almost certainly need publisher funding. That in turn means giving up some of your creative freedom and a large chunk of the profits from a game.
If you go the indie route you avoid these problems but you have to solve a new set of challenges. Where does the money come from to make the game, how do you raise awareness of your game with the gamers you hope will buy it when you cant afford a huge advertising campaign? How do you handle the design challenges required to make a game on a lower budget and how do you find the time to build relationships with Microsoft, Sony, Nintendo, Apple and all the media? In short you have to become a publisher yourself and somehow find the time to do all of this work on top of developing a great game.
Are there any download titles which have impressed you recently and why?
Castle Crashers on XBLA and Zen Bound on iPhone. They both have their own very unique style, which I like a lot. Castle Crashers also has a lot of depth and Zen Bound is very Zen. Its a wonderful idea beautifully executed.
Were seeing a whole raft of games via XBLA, PSN and WiiWare that probably would have never made it to retail otherwise. Do you think the big three companies are doing enough to continue to nurture smaller developers for their platforms?
I am not sure they are doing enough but I think they may be doing as much as they can. Huge companies like Microsoft, Sony and Nintendo have huge overheads (the company is expensive to run). That means that everything they spend time on must generate enough profit to cover those huge costs. The money that Microsoft earns off an XBLA game (even a very successful one like Castle Crashers or Worms) is thousands of time less than they will earn from CoD, GTA IV or Tico. If you look at XLCG (now renamed to Xbox Live Indie Games) Microsoft wont be earning anything like enough money to even cover the cost of running that. They are doing it to encourage indie development and, of course, to get people used to developing for Xbox 360 which ultimately will be good for Microsoft.
Although the download scene for consoles has become well established in a short space of time, do you think theres a real future for them? Or do you think theyre paving the way for full digital delivery and just a means to an end testing the water so to speak?
I certainly believe that Sony and Microsoft (and probably Nintendo) view the future as being one where all games are downloaded (or streamed from servers). Controlling distribution (being able to get games on shelves) was vital in the retail age and it will be equally important in the digital age. Steam, XBLA, PSN, Apples App Store and Wiiware are all attempts by these companies to own distribution.
I believe that many of the current publishers will buy into this because they see it as a way to reduce piracy and eliminate the resale of used games (from which they earn no revenue).
The turn over times to produce downloadable titles means there seems to be a much more constants flow than with traditional retail releases for example XBLA gets at least one new game every week. While this is great choice for consumers, do you think it presents a long term problem for developers in that their game gets lost amongst the crowd?
Oh yes. In fact getting noticed is THE major challenge for indie developers. This is where I think Microsoft, Sony and Apple have all fallen down. Their digital stores simply dont allow for the same level of searching, filtering and recommendation/ratings that Amazon have proven is so necessary with a digital store.
How have you tried to address this issue with Space Ark?
As you mentioned earlier we are trying to come up with a visual style that stands out. We are also talking to you guys as much as possible in order to get the word out and let gamers know about the game, so that they can decide if it something they might like. We also have our blog/website, Youtube channel, Facebook Page and Twitter. Its a lot of work managing it all but it is important because people access information in so many different ways.
I also think the use of video is very important. Its actually quite easy to misinterpret a game based solely on seeing screen shots. Videos (and demos) help users to understand the game batter and make an informed decision on purchasing. We are going to be releasing gameplay videos throughout development as well as a demo at time of release.
A big thanks to Dan Marchant and his team for taking the time to speak to us. You can check out Geon right now on the PSN and Space Ark when it arrives on Xbox Live Arcade later this year.