Community Games: Interview with Paul Hudson
Welcome to day 3 of our ongoing coverage of the Community Games Service on Xbox Live. Today our guest is none other than Paul Hudson, who wrote an article on the service for OXM. Paul is probably one of the few that can not only say they have worked for a magazine about video games, but has actually created a video game! Paul is the creator of the Community Game Brain Party, a game similar in style to some other Brain games where you tackle mini-games and at the end your evaluated by those mini-games. What separates Paul’s game from the game is 25 interesting mini-games that are more fleshed out than the offerings other Brain games, such as the Xbox Live Arcade’s Brain Challenge.
DHGF- I’d love any information regarding the procedure you went through in creating your Community Game.
– Sit and think for ages.
– A week of intense coding for the Dream-Build-Play competition.
– Sitting around reading books until a week before XBLCG is released.
– Add a bit of polish to the game and get it ready for release.
If I weren’t so naturally inclined to sit around and procrastinate, the whole process would have been over in 10 days. But as it is, XNA makes it easy to dip in and dip out of your project; it’s never really
too intense that you forget where you left off.
DHGF -What inspired you to make and game, and what drew you to using XNA?
PH – I think many gamers want to make their own games – that’s why game creation tools (even old things such as The Games Factory) have been so popular: point, click, and make games. XNA is obviously a lot trickier than those GUI tools, but on the other hand it is a lot
easier than having to work with the real Xbox APIs – the guys at Microsoft have put in a lot of work to streamline the experience for developers.
As for what drew me to XNA: I code just about anything that stays still long enough. XNA just seemed like one more thing to try, but I have to admit it’s got me hooked – it really is very well designed.
DHGF -How’d you come up with the idea for your game?
PH – There are very few original ideas around; mine is a collection of minigames with a simple test structure around it – very similar to Nintendo’s DS games.
DHGF -Can you provide a description of your game?
PH – Brain Party is a game that makes you think, makes you memorize, makes you calculate, and makes you juggle numbers. A lot of people find it hard, but it’s a great feeling when you can see your scores going up as your memory gets stronger, your mathematics ability increases, and
DHGF -Any stories you’d like to share about the developmental process for the game?
1) It took me just over a week to make my game. Granted, that was a week of pretty intense coding, but the main problem was simply that I was learning XNA as I went – this is my first complete project with the system, so I had to figure out a lot of things on the move. That
slowed me down, but I’m over it now and looking forward to my project.
2) When my game was approved and ready to go on sale – less than a week before NXE was due to launch – a major problem was discovered. Put simply, all Community Games have a built-in timer that, after four minutes in trial mode, pops up a Guide window saying “Trial over – go buy the full game!”. We were told that this was all done for us by Microsoft, so no one really worried about it. But with Brain Party, the whole Xbox locked up when that screen appeared – you couldn’t quit, you couldn’t buy the game, etc. It turns out there was a bug in NXE that wasn’t properly resetting the graphics system, but the team at Microsoft worked overtime to find out exactly what caused the issue and what I could do to Brain Party as a workaround until they fixed the problem on their side. In the end, NXE shipped with that bug intact, which is why Snake360 is having such a hard time – the game has exactly the same problem.
DHGF -How long did it take to create?
PH – Eight days. I’ve got a lot of experience with coding, so I wrote the minigame system to be easily extended. In programming terms, I made a minigame class, and each minigame builds upon (or “inherits”) from that class, thus gaining all sorts of functionality. So, things like
the professor telling you how to play each game, the scoring system, the brain weight calculation, and the 3D effects all come for free: I write them in the minigame class, and forget about it.
DHGF -Can you describe the process of finishing, testing, then completing your game?
PH – You know you’ve got a good game when people can’t stop playing it. I made a version of Brain Party for Windows Mobile phones, and my wife plays it all the time, so I knew I was onto something good. With the 360, you need to pass peer review, and because we were the first batch
of games to make it to the market the actual criteria for approving games varied a great deal. Can games be rejected because they crash?
Sure they can. But what if games use the full 720p screen resolution for their information? Well, that’s a no-no according to Microsoft’s best practices guide because a lot of folks have their TVs configured badly, so we need to ignore 128 pixels on the left, 128 on the right, 72 on the top and 72 on the bottom – essentially making our games 1024×576. Some people with SDTVs rejected games because they used the full screen resolution; other people didn’t. Some rejected games that required people to play with Controller One; other people didn’t. But we got there in the end!
DHGF -Was it difficult trying to figure out a price point for your game?
PH – No: I just picked something in the middle. It’s surprising how much prices vary around the industry, though – Handango, the company that sells my Windows Mobile version of Brain Party, recommended $15 for the game. On the iPhone, a lot of things cost less than $2. So the 360
comes in the middle: Brain Party is 400 points, which is a little under $5. Some people might say that’s a lot, but compared to just about everything else around $5 is spare change.
-The Community Games just recently launched on Xbox Live, is there anything you’d like to see changed or added to the service in the future?
PH – Support for Silverlight, Microsoft’s “Flash killer”. There are lots of Flash games out there that are incredibly popular; it’d be nice if something similar could be dropped into XNA so that folks with nothing other than art skill could make games.
– Avatars. There some general worry that Community Games creators will do evil things to avatars (which, I have to admit, is a rather tempting idea), but Microsoft already solved a problem with gamer presence – we can’t set custom text like XBLA games can, but we do get to choose from a big list of possible options. With Avatars, perhaps we wouldn’t have direct access to the models, but we could say “draw the avatar at these co-ordinates, and make him smile”.
DHGF -Is there anything you’d like to say to anyone out there who might be interested in creating a game or using the XNA service?
PH – The tools cost nothing to download and try, and there are stacks of examples from Microsoft you can try immediately. If you’re great with art but suck at coding, that’s fine: snag one of the starter kits and redo the graphics – people don’t really care if the gameplay is recycled because a platform game is a platform game, ultimately), but if you can do something a little special then you’ve got a chance at success. That might be cool graphics; it might be level design; I don’t know – just do something, and don’t think that something needs to be code.