Indie Games: Winter Uprising Intro/Interview with Ian Stoker

When Microsoft announced that they were going to be supporting independently made games through Xbox Live, I was hopeful and excited by the prospects. One of my favorite Xbox Live Arcade games is The Dishwasher, which is one of the Dream.Build.Play winning games from the independent Ska Studios. I also believe that fostering an independent community of game developers is one of the best ways of finding developers who are willing to take risks and think outside of the box. In many ways video games are the transmission of a concept from the developer to the person playing the game, without an infusion of new concepts from time to time than everything begins to feel stagnant.

Like I said I had high hopes for the Community Game service (as it was known). Those hopes were stomped on like the heads of many goombas under thick soled plumber’s boots. Microsoft did little, and still does little, to promote the service to try and grow awareness of this unique service. If they can throw up some Wendy’s userpics for download or whatever else the dashboard is trying to sell me today (on an already paid for service!), then you’d think that maybe they could find space once a month to throw a little graphic on there saying “By the way, there are some Indie Games right over there!”. There are a ton of applications in the Indie Games service that could be separated into a different menu so that the first impression for someone looking at it will not think that the Indie Games is mostly a bunch of screensaver, massage or other apps. There are several other ways that they could be helping the service they created and just have not done so. Hell, they’ve even been in the way of helping sales sometimes by slow updating sales keeping games out of the top selling list and when the new Dash launched did not even gave the Indie Games service listed under games.

Which is a perfect example of how Microsoft treats the service.

When it comes down to it, the problem with the Indie Games service is not just in the hands of Microsoft. A lot of the responsibility comes down to the developers as well. I’ve mentioned my thoughts on it a couple years ago but it still seems like there are people who are good designers, and those who are good artists, with only a few being able to nail down both aspects. Then there are the Application makers, which while not always a bad thing, many of them look hastily thrown together and are pointless. Some sell well though, which leads to the vulture developers. It doesn’t matter if it’s an App or Game on the service, if it does well there will be a ton of similar ones clogging up the service for the following weeks or months. A Massage App did well, so of course there are a bunch more. Imadeagamewithzombiesinit did really well so a bunch of zombie games have polluted the service as well, that’s not to say they’re all bad, but a majority are obvious lazy attempts at trying to make a few bucks.

Which leads to the failure of ‘Video Game Journalists’ on covering most of these games in the first place. I don’t say that it’s a requirement for these games to be covered, the failure lies in the fact that many sites would rather cover the vultures, the massage app makers, the guy who made a fireplace app, and so on instead of trying to cover the games that deserve the coverage just because mocking a massage app gets more hits. These Attention Whores get hits for their articles, make the service look like a joke and inadvertently make sure that the Massage App that they covered gets more sales than the hidden gem of a game someone might have worked a year on.

Despite my obvious anger of the situation I’m not an indie developer myself. I tried to make an origami swan once and it ended up looking more like a paper vagina. I’d hate to think what mess I’d create if I tried game design. As someone who has sat on the sidelines and rooted for the service I’ve played games like Weapon of Choice, CarnyVale or Easy Golf and was blown away by the quality of the games. To see that many of the same struggles the service was going through when I wrote a feature on it two years ago is disappointing.

As someone who just enjoys games, my frustrations as an outsider is probably nothing compared to those who actually make some of the Xbox Live Indie Games. A few of the developers came together and decided to help co-promote their own games as part of a seasonal themed initiative. Like the Xbox Live Summer of Arcade program. Only it was not meant to be just a promotion, it is an uprising. See for yourself with the video made to show some of the different games as part of the Uprising:

Indie Winter Uprising Video

Over the next days, weeks, or however long it takes, I’m going to take a look at the games that are a part of the Indie Games: Winter Uprising. Instead of being discouraged by the difficulties involved, this group of developers have decided to get together and try and solve the problems the service has presented by themselves. But why settle for my words about it when you can read about the idea from one of the developers who initially came up with the idea? Below is a quick interview done with Ian Stoker of MagicalTimeBean, creator of Soulcaster and of the Winter Uprising game Soulcaster II.

Interview with Ian Stoker

DHGF-How did the concept originate for the Winter Uprising?

Ian- At the beginning of November, Microsoft updated the XBOX Live dashboard and moved some things around. Because of the new placement of Indie Games, downloads and sales slowed down a lot for everyone. (Microsoft has since moved us back to the Games section and downloads
are picking back up.) My next title, Soulcaster II, was almost ready for release, and I was thinking of ways to overcome the reduced traffic.

I contacted Robert Boyd at Zeboyd Games to ask about a potential cross-promotion with his upcoming RPG, Cthulhu Saves the World. I figured we had a similar target audience, and if we released around
the same time we could get more media attention. Robert liked the idea and wanted to expand it to more than just two games, so he posted to the XNA forums calling for developers to apply to be part of the “Winter Uprising.”

DHGF- What was the process used to determine which developers would be part of the Uprising?

Ian- XBLIG has a stereotype in some circles, especially if you read comments on the major gaming blogs. Everyone knows we have Avatar games and novelty apps, but not everyone knows about the hardcore/retro/arcade style games we have, a lot of which are of excellent quality. So we said no avatar games and no apps for this promotion. None of us have anything against them, we just wanted a specific target for this event.

We also had a level of quality control, which was kind of dicey–neither of us felt comfortable judging others’ games, but ultimately we had to ensure this promotion put our community’s best foot forward. Robert handled pretty much all of this.

I was excepting a good amount of backlash from developers whose games were rejected, but ultimately, the support was overwhelmingly positive. Devs who didn’t have a game ready offered to help promote the Uprising. Devs whose games were not qualified for whatever reason still supported us. This was during a desperate time when the #savexblig tag was found frequently on Twitter. Camaraderie was high.

DHGF- With how little attention Microsoft seems to give the Indie Game section and the amount of different massage applications that flood the service, how do you guys not get discouraged?

Ian- During the first week of November, a lot of XNA developers felt abandoned by Microsoft. But from my perspective, this was a fluke in the company’s history of awesome support for developers. Microsoft created XNA so that we can distribute our titles to the entire XBOX Live user base. This is unprecedented in console gaming.

DHGF- The process for getting a game on the service means making it through the peer review process, was it(or is it currently) difficult to try and plan to release these games around the same time?

Ian- The Uprising is a grassroots event that gave developers less than a month’s notice to get their games ready for review. The first week of December has already passed, and many titles aren’t out yet (including mine), but we should all make it by the end of the month. We’re definitely more committed to releasing quality, bug-free games than meeting our first-week-of-December deadline.

DHGF- Are you worried at all that with releasing these games at around the same time that you and the other Indie developers might be cannibalizing each other sales?

Ian- My theory is that our problem is not competition, but lack of traffic. If you’re selling $59 games then competition is huge, because you’re competing for what could be someone’s entire monthly gaming budget. But at $1 to $3, that’s way less of an issue.

DHGF- What is the overall goal for the Uprising?

Ian- The main goal is to increase traffic to the Indie Games channel on XBOX Live. We’re on shoestring budgets here, with almost no money to spend on marketing. All our games have free demos and they’re small downloads–most under 50MB. I bet most players do what I do when I visit, which is grab several demos at once and then try them all out.

DHGF- Can you tell us a little about your game, Soulcaster 2, and what is new and different from the first Soulcaster title?

Ian- Soulcaster II has the same core game mechanics as Soulcaster I, but with all new levels, environment graphics, and soundtrack. There are a few new monster types, more complex scripting for the levels, and improved enemy AI. I can guarantee if you liked the first one, you’re
going to like the second one.

DHGF- What advice would you give to a new Indie developer looking to make a game for the Xbox Indie Games service?

Ian- Just get started, and be consistent in putting in a small amount of time every day. Focus on making a game that’s fun for you to play while you make it. And pick a project you can complete in a few months rather than a year or more. Set a release date.

Keep checking DiehardGameFAN throughout the upcoming days (weeks, however long it takes) for coverage of the rest of the Indie Games: Winter Uprising. We will be covering every game, with reviews out for the first batch of games shortly, as well as some nods to other great games available on the Xbox Live Indie Games Service.

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