Indie Games Spotlight for January 8th, 2012

By mancide,
Following up our highlight of Decimation X3, Xonatron agreed to sit down with us and share some of his experiences developing Xbox Live Indie Games.

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How long have you been developing Indie games?

Matthew: Jason and I have been developing indie games professionally since 2008 under the incorporation Xona Games. However we have been developing indie games, before they were known as indie games, since second grade. We started on a Texas Instruments TI-99/4A Home Computer. We have a small tribute page about it on; and anyone really into Parsec, the hit game on the system, will want to check it out!

What events or concepts helped shape the direction for your games?

Matthew: It’s always an impossibility to answer this question fully, because literally every gaming moment in our lives shape what we wish to do.

You can see that Decimation X3 has a strong connection to TI Invaders on the TI-99/4A, which we consider to be the best Space Invaders clone ever created. This is early elementary school experience guiding us today. In the Arcades, Raiden and R-Type have had profound impact on us.

From the consoles, the Thunder Force series is worth mentioning. You can perhaps feel the excitement of Thunder Force mapped onto the gameplay of Raiden in Duality ZF, our upcoming game in development. The list goes on and on.

Japanese culture has had a huge impact, although notably we have not experienced much from Cave, who are considered the best shmup developers by hardcore fans, until our direction was already set. It was also from Japan that we founded native support in what we coined as “dual play”, the ability to control two fighters at the same time. The level of skill, passion, and appreciate of games in the Japanese culture is breathtaking. We want to meet their standards. It is a honor that we achieved this on some level with all three of our Xbox LIVE Indie Games being rated in the top 5 out of 2,000 games. This was before we were targeted for rating manipulation abuse, twice, to which Microsoft did not cancel out all the fake votes.

Current inspiration has derived from the more successful XBLA games that maintain the old-school arcade feel. I still wish games like OutRun Online Arcade, After Burner Climax, and Hard Corps: Uprising performed better than they do. These games contain the experiences that I most miss from my childhood.

As you can see, we are very nostalgic. But it is important to note that it is the experiences from our past we wish to rekindle, not the games. Games have to meet a new level of standards to produce the same experiences we once enjoyed. In a gaming world becoming more social and more involvement-oriented versus skill-challenged and with new generations having more of a sense of entitlement, it is tough to produce games that reward skill. We believe consequence is a good thing, and without it some of the deepest and most powerful emotional experiences cannot be created.

Xona Games have been pretty out-spoken about issues with the Xbox Live Indie Games service, especially with your Xona Proposal article. Have any of your complaints been solved with the changes to the service since the article was written? Are there any new issues you think need addressing?

Matthew: As far as we know, none of our suggestions have been taken into account. If anything, things are heading in the opposite direction. It is sad for me to see the potential of Xbox LIVE Indie Games be squashed. I suspect an indie game channel with achievements (even just one achievement for finishing the game) with a design based of my proposal would be 10 to 100 times bigger than it is now. It’s evolutionary, as in the proposal would turn around what is now a downward spiral. Overtime developers would be making the most money off providing the highest quality gaming experiences, and thus other developers would compete to do the same instead of selling out off clones and Avatar gimmicks. (Take note I am not bashing clones and Avatar games here. Quality clones and Avatar games would still sell within the proposal’s design.)

There are deep issues with traffic flow, in the sense that Xbox LIVE users are the traffic that is flowing, with the Xbox Dashboard. It’s become worse with the Kinect-friendly dashboard. As cool as it is to say “Xbox Bing Score Rush” and have Score Rush pop up, it’s difficult to find content. The platforms job is to bring you to your requested content and XBLIG as a platform has never done this job, and now the Dashboard on top of it makes it harder still.

For those of you who have read my proposal linked to above, there still remains a large opportunity for an indie gaming platform that treats games as Google treats websites. There is now an overabundant amount of content that must be filtered. The “wild west” strategy is not only unfair to the developers, but it is unfair to the consumers too.

I also wish platforms would differentiate between FPS and shoot ‘em ups, as they are completely different genres. Halo, Modern Warfare, and Battlefield are not the same game, genre, or experience as Raiden, Ikaruga & Radiant Silvergun, and Geometry Wars.

Xona Games has been the victim of ratings manipulation in the past. How do you think Microsoft, or the community as a whole, could combat this issue?

Matthew: I hate to continually bring up the Xona Proposal, but since it would increase voting as well as increase traffic, it has to be mentioned. More legit votes makes fake voting harder. In our abuse, our games with the lowest amount of votes were hit the hardest, which is why our original Decimation X is still high in Japan’s ratings.

Other measures exist to detect rating abuse based on profiling.

I will say I disagree with forcing someone to play the trial or buy the game to count a vote. We want intelligent solutions, not judgmental ones. Such a system has been suggested based on fear from developers worried about their games being voted down too quickly. But this judgement happens regardless if you count the vote or not. If someone judges your game quickly or not, they should be allowed to vote. We should not instill any restrictions to how much a gamer has to check out a game to vote it down. We do not want to be forced to download games that are already known to be bad, and many XBLIG games fall into this category. We need more votes, not less. And if you create a game that is so bad in its box art, screenshots, and description that gamers down vote you, that’s feedback you want.

If you could go back in time and change one thing about the development of any of your games, what would it be and what would you do different?

Matthew: We would have made professional games sooner, and released onto the PC platform sooner. Steam’s indie channel is amazing and we can get on to there. It saddens me that XBLIG is not on part with Steam’s indie section, as it very “easily” could be.

Do you all feel, as most frequently comes up on TrueAchievements, that Indie Games would benefit from a small amount of Gamerscore?

Matthew: They would benefit enormously. This is undeniable. I have fought for XBLIG achievements since the inception of XBLIG. I argued for a tiered system so a $5 game has five times the Gamerscore as a $1 game, and half the Gamerscore of an XBLA game, to avoid the race to the bottom syndrome that has plagued XBLIG. It also lets the same dollar buy the same amount of Gamerscore (not counting sales), for the most part.

We were almost booted off the XNA forums for fighting for this so much. The excuses against Gamerscore in the XNA forums ranged from technical to outlandish to mythical to achievement-hating, but in the end they were just excuses, and XBLIG has suffered for lack of achievements and leaderboards.

If you care to share, what has been the most unique reaction to your games since it's release? Either positive or negative.

Matthew: I think the “Decimation X3” day at “The Pier 21” arcade in Japan was incredible. They put Decimation X3 in an arcade cabinet and had a high score contest all day.

Do you have any future plans for more Indie Games?

Matthew: We do. Our next idea after Duality ZF could be huge. Expect something new from us, with the excitement of our past games! It will likely be cross-platform too. Before this, we are considering bringing Score Rush and Decimation X3 to PSN. We would have settled for XBLIG with achievements and leaderboards, but at some point you have to stop fighting for things that are not going to happen and move onward.

After most of this interview had been conducted and written, Microsoft updated the XBLIG program with a few tweaks to the program. We contacted Matt at Xona Games to get an update on his initial views of this recent change by Microsoft.

Do you have any comments on the recently announced changes to XBLIG, and do you feel these changes are moving the service in the right or wrong direction?

Matt: I see the changes as a positive movement in the future of XBLIG. Such limits exist to avoid abuse, but can get in the way of good developers who have legitimate reasons to go beyond the limits. I've always been on the side of increasing such limits for a few good developers at the cost of having bad developers abuse the system. Expect to see more huge games that do not need to be so huge. But, then again, these are those "bad" XBLIG games that most gamers will be avoiding anyway. It all comes back to a natural occurring filtering system that should be a core of XBLIG, to clean up all messes that developers produce. There's my proposal mentioned again.

Speaking of limits, we at Xona Games personally wished Microsoft would also increase the 50 token limit. We ran out far too quickly. It doesn't get you far to engage in long conversations back and forth with potential reviewers, all the while trying to optimize your token usage. Some reviewers take offense to this. Sometimes we had to PayPal $1 to cover the cost of our games, which makes everyone feel cheap. Imagine if you were a game reviewer: What would be best is an unsolicited email from a developer with a code and a request to try out a game, no strings attached.

All in all these changes are good, as it means Microsoft still cares. Now to get them to care about achievements. It is, and has always been and always will be, the most wished for lacking feature of XBLIG.

If you have an Xbox Live Indie Game that you feel should be featured in an edition of the Indie Games Spotlight, please PM your suggestions to mancide.
Written by mancide
When not enjoying video games, our fearless newshound enjoys an nice pint of fermented barley and hops in a variety of styles. India Pale Ales, Stouts, Porters, Witbiers, Saisons, Gose, Lambics, Barleywine, you name it. If it has water, malted barley, hops and yeast in it, I'll consume it.

I also enjoy all things technological, Doctor Who, wrasslin, traveling, and spending time with my family.
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